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‘Nigeria needs new technologies to drive inclusion, growth’



Akin Banuso is Microsoft Country General Manager for Nigeria, Ghana and Cameroun.  His mandate is to drive the overall country business performance (people, revenue, and profitability) including the short-term and long-term performance of all customers’ segments. Prior to his role as Country General Manager, Banuso has been in the Information & Communication Technology Industry for over 20 years. He joined Microsoft from Dell EMC where he spent the last 12 years in various positions. In this interview with ADEYEMI ADEPETUN and OLUWATOSIN AREO, he spoke on the need for Nigeria to get involved in emerging technologies, especially Artificial Intelligence, which he said has the capability to open the economy.

How do we explain to a lay man, what Artificial intelligence is all about?
AI is a set of technology capabilities that enhances human ingenuity, like Machine Learning, data collation and voice recognition. It is not about replacing human beings, but enhancing their capabilities and productivity. For instance, when you use Microsoft Word, it will prompt you when you’ve made an error and provide correct suggestions. That does understand cognitively what doesn’t match what you’re trying to say.

PowerPoint recognises pictures and provides suggestions to make presentations better. Microsoft Outlook will remind you of a mail that needs to be responded to. That is part of AI infused into different technologies to help people become more efficient. Other ways we are deploying AI is with robotic processors in a bank. Someone usually does the reconciliation of ATM machines, and we work with our partner to capture processes rather than sitting with machines at night.

Now, we have the power of the cloud to process data quicker. Machines can handle this work, while business owners are freed up to think of more innovative ways to serve their customers.

What do you see as the greatest challenge to AI in Nigeria?
It is the skills. Skills are still very limited in Nigeria and that is why we are partnering with Data Science Nigeria, through Microsoft 4Afrika. The ecosystem is now data centric; if you don’t have the skills in this century then you will be left behind.

The world is now mobile-first. People do the majority of their transactions on their mobile device. We need to ensure that Nigeria is at the forefront, because it is the skill economy that will dictate the future, especially if we must create jobs as a nation.

Recently in April, we opened a global support center for Microsoft in Lagos, which created around 200 jobs. Employees are not just required to pick up the phone, but also give technical support to Microsoft customers globally. This was made possible because of relevant training. We want to be at the forefront of the economy so it is the skill set that matters if technology must aid our development.

How can technology drive financial inclusion for us as a country?
There are ideas and applications that are deployed for financial inclusion. AI is already deployed for on-boarding customers into banking. Instead of asking each person to come into a branch, you’re able to onboard people using their mobile phone to upload photos and scan ID cards. The processing that normally takes weeks if you’re not there physically, can be done within minutes with technology.

I see norms, culture and beliefs in some part of Nigeria affect AI adoption, what is your take?
This is why we say AI is not a product but an initiative and movement to enhance human ingenuity. It is to provide tools that enhance what humans can do. We train Nigerians to manipulate and understand new tools, empowering them to come up with new solutions that are relevant to our reality. If our norms and beliefs do not allow for that, then we should develop solutions, but using tools that allow us serve our customers better and faster even with those norms. The reality is we don’t know what the next solutions will be. But we can give them the skills platform and tools.

How far have you gone with Microsoft 4Afrika initiatives?
Microsoft 4Afrika launched in 2013, and we have recorded good wins in developing skills for West Africa. Together with partners such as Sidmach, we have opened AppFactory (Apprenticeship Factory) academies, where apprentices learn modern skills and apply their knowledge to solving real-life problems in their areas. We have supported innovations on the mobile; we have provided support for Fintech startups in Nigeria.

This initiative is also in partnership with the Tony Elumelu Foundation, providing skills and technology for entrepreneurs. Our Interns4Afrika programme also places university graduates with our partner organisations for six months to learn tech, non-tech and entrepreneurship skills including basic accounting and book keeping education.

We are working on some strategic partnerships to reach SMEs so as to deliver knowledge skills and training, as there are many business owners that have no requisite knowledge of the trade they are into. We partner with people with the knowledge in our research team, including farmers to gain maximum yield.

AI will ride on infrastructure, what will be the effect of the low broadband penetration in Nigeria?
Broadband penetration is a concern, but it is getting better. We are working with the TV White Space business initiatives, and the Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to have technologies that would adopt global standards, which uses unused frequencies in the television spectrum. We are encouraging and providing for our partners so they can build offerings around it. It will enable broadband to be offered at a low-rate to underserved communities. We are not telecommunications operators, but we know that there is a need to make broadband available in locations and this tech makes it come in affordable ways. Partners are trying to light up underserved communities, remote areas, among others.

What is the involvement of Microsoft in Data Science Nigeria’s bootcamp?
We chose to sponsor this event through the Microsoft 4Afrika initiative and we have been pursuing up-scaling Africa entrepreneurs since 2013. As mentioned, we have created AppFactories to empower people locally to develop solutions to local problems using global concepts and AI is part of the technology.

It must be stated again that AI does not replace humans, it will only enhance technology and help to improve human ingenuity.

Technology has advanced and we have the ability to punch massive loads of data. Our mobile phones also do a lot. In India, we are able to come up with machine learning. We were able to come up with exact timing for planting particular crops. That is a good use case because there’s data about the soil, pest, crop cycle and also geographical data from the satellite to calculate when to plant using technology. All you need to do is text in their local language because many of them don’t have access to smart phones. It brings the people forward.

With regards to the banks in Nigeria, we partner with them to assist them in fraud analytics. Banks are regulated heavily. Data has been part of the issue that has stopped them from issuing loans. Someone can collect a loan today and collect from another bank. This is happening because data is not shared or available.

The fourth industrial revolution is not about oil, but data. Data is the new oil. If you have the right amount of data, and you are able to correlate it, and draw the right inferences, it will help solve one problem or the other.

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